When Cowboys Were Her Weakness
Joan Didion and John Wayne: A Love Story.
We dream of an America that may or may not have existed. Not sure if dream is the appropriate word. Hallucinate—there, that’s better—which for most of the past century has been produced by Hollywood: the cosmic engineers of the dream. “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant” is a Peggy Lee quote that Joan Didion uses to introduce Slouching Towards Bethlehem. With it, she elevates a movie star to the level of myth. It’s the teaser to a dream that always begins on the silver screen. Rewind to the summer of 1943: The world is at war. The dream is threatened by newsreel footage of B-29 bombers flying over bulbous clouds. An eight-year-old Joan Didion sits on a folding chair as her pupils enlarge like the aperture on a camera. “Saw the walk, heard the voice…thought of him telling the girl at The Alamo that ‘Republic is a beautiful word.’”
That was Joan Didion’s first memory of John Wayne. She remembers him telling a girl in one of his movies that he was going to build her a house, “At the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” Didion dreamt of that house, at the bend in the river, for the next two decades. Dreamt of the cowboy defending the code. Dreamt that, “Republic is a beautiful word.” She was gushing over the dream. John Wayne was her beau idéal of the American male. For Joan Didion—raised on the mythos of straight shooters and rugged individualists—John Wayne had a “sexual authority so strong that even child could perceive it.” Didion was that child. John Wayne was her Joe DiMaggio; her caped crusader; her screaming Paul McCartney; her daddy in square-toed cowboy boots. “Although the men I have known have had many virtues…they have never been John Wayne,” she wrote in her 1965 essay “John Wayne: A Love Song.” The image of John Wayne as a domineering daddy figure was reimagined by singer Lana Del Rey in her dazzlingly psychedelic short film Tropico, where she prays to a flickering pastiche of the Duke: “Dear John, forgive us our sins. Dear John, forgive us our sins,” whispers Del Rey, as a piano plays under a hallucination of John Wayne telling us to “Saddle up” and “Ride.”
Didion wrote the first part of a love song that Lana Del Rey would later remix into high-camp spectacle. It’s a tune we’ve heard before. It is a melody that scores the fact that yes, er, cowboys are our weakness. Singer and producer Paula Cole wrote a love song in 1997, asking, “Where is my John Wayne? Where have all the cowboys gone?” It’s as if she’s echoing Didion who was echoing Hollywood’s six-gun mystique—America’s masculine hero myth—which would be subverted in Pam Houston’s 1992 short story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness. “A real cowboy is hard to find these days,” wrote Pam Houston, who was skinning masculinity with the sharpened edge of her hunting knife. Cowboys weren’t really her weakness; they were Didion’s, though, who longed for the amber glow of desert sunsets and rainfall scored to “Red River Valley.” Didion would eventually act as the cinematographer of her own dream. She’d cut the scenes that didn’t pair well with her aesthetic. John Wayne made the final cut; migrant workers sprayed with poisonous pesticides did not. The visual poetry and precision of Didion’s writing often read like an auteur’s camera lens. “When I hear the word ‘intellectual,’ I reach for my gun,” she wrote in 1976’s “Why I Write.” She was talking about her typewriter: a Lettera 22 (it even sounds like a gun). Her first-person omniscience reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock reminding actress Janet Leigh that, “My camera is absolute.” But Joan Didion is as much auteur as she is cinéma vérité. As much an obsessive Hitchcock as she is an intuitive John Ford. She became the fulfillment of film critic Parker Tyler’s belief that literature and cinema are “hand-in-glove conspirators.” Didion writes journalistic motion pictures. John Wayne is the star of her fetish film.
Most Americans have at one point dreamt of being a cowboy. We all have our version of what a cowboy is. The archetypes are innumerable, homoerotic, cartoonishly masculine, tawdry, and occasionally magnificent. Joan Didion’s cowboy is a tall, lumbering, magnetically charismatic hunk who’s as much Newport Beach as Durango. “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours,” writes Didion, “he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” In 1964, the dream was being marauded at a cellular level. John Wayne had been diagnosed with cancer; Didion would describe it in cinematic terms as, “The one shoot-out Wayne could lose.” Naturally, the critics assume Didion’s “love song” is an elegiac tribute to a dying movie star. The coda of her ballad is certainly melancholic. Others view it as a meditation on the loss of innocence—Eden lost. There’s some of that, too. My theory is that Didion’s John Wayne is fueled by a triad of fetishization, Burkean conservatism, and Didion’s coping mechanism (i.e., “magical thinking”) for what was happening in America between 1965 and 1967.
It was then that the dream was being unraveled by a revolution that was, they said, for the “greater good.” The voice, the walk, those baked, hooded eyes—frosted blue—which figured into Didion’s romantic individualism as both a sworn disciple of Hemingway and the pale-faced pioneers of the Central Valley—which shaped the “I” in her writing. The “greater good,” as Didion would later describe it in her daring criticism of the women’s movement, required, “a certain ethical suspension”; it required collectivized thinking that was, in her words, Stalinist. She was pushing back against that by romanticizing what Western scholar Martin once described as a “vanishing symbol of individualism in an age of togetherness and conformity.” Joan Didion was praying to a technicolor dream of the country America used to be (an illusion Lana Del Rey would brilliantly exploit to the point of garish absurdity). John Wayne was her blue pill in the middle of the great awakening. We’ve all dreamt with such unconscious adoration for American myth, often indecipherable from American history. We’ve all been swept away by a galloping cowboy with sunbaked skin and sandpaper stubble. Their steel spurs shimmer along the edge of our dreams. The cowboy is both the American Adam and the Mickey Mouse of the frontier. The six-gun mystique is part of an American creation myth that’s blazed its trails from the rugged frontier of the 19th century to Ronald Reagan cutting the ribbon to Disney’s Frontierland in the 20th century.
“John Wayne: A Love Song” was published in The Saturday Evening Post on August 14, 1965. The cover of the Post includes a dreamy portrait of John F. Kennedy. The feature stories are “Hiroshima: 20 Years Later” and “JOHN WAYNE,” who had just had a cancerous lung surgically removed from his body. The atomization of America is captured in a single magazine cover: the bomb, the assassination, and the vanishing symbol of a dream. Atomization is Didion’s way of describing the dream being nuked from every direction by disorder, radicalism, radioactive fallout, assassination, and a floral militia of unkempt children. “The center was not holding,” she wrote of the Haight-Ashbury hippies in 1967, who she described as “pathetically unequipped children” who did not wear shoes i.e., “savages.” The counterculture had paradoxically borrowed many of its motifs from the insensitive depictions of Native Americans in Westerns and dime novels. The “Indian way of life,” as literary critic Leslie Fielder described it, had become a symbol of a counter-culture movement composed of children who wanted to play the Indian. Joan Didion was saddling up with John Wayne and facing off against the boho-chic marauders who wore fashionable moccasins and hunted for game in the frozen food aisle at Ralph’s. Didion had been raised to believe she was the ancestor of pioneers who fought the Indians. Maybe she was. “One of the commonest motifs in Didion’s writing is, bizarrely,” wrote Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, “an Oregon Trail-type survivalism. She had been taught that those who colonized California were ‘the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.’”
The exaggerated hedonism of the West Coast hippies seemed like a predictable protest for Didion, whose sophisticated prose was chiseled with prudence, introspection, oracularity, and the pragmatic efficiency of a Vogue editor. She valued meticulously honed candor to mysticism and that self-devouring, Dionysian irrationality personified in rock stars like Jim Morrison. She was pushing back against Dionysus. Her column for The Saturday Evening Post (1964 - 1969) was being written in the middle of a revolution that seemed, at least to her, as self-defeating. Her attunement to the disorder was translated into Burkean terms. Here’s political theorist Edmund Burke reflecting on the French Revolution in 1790:
“Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”
Didion was pushing back against radicalism. In the wake of the Manson Murders two years later, it seemed Didion may have been prescient: the hippies were perhaps ill-equipped to push the country forward for the “greater good.” In both her essay on John Wayne and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion mentions the importance of rules and codes: these tacit agreements that prevent things from falling apart. For Joan Didion, and apparently, John Wayne, a fracturing of the rules was how America had begun to fall apart. Didion’s column was her way of navigating to, “At just what pass the trail has been lost.” Here is Didion describing the hippie stampede in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:
“At some point between 1945 and 1967, we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we had been playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.”
John Wayne was the one who had traditionally done the telling. He represented Didion’s subconscious longing for what Lana Del Rey would describe in 2012 as the “country America used to be.” John Wayne represented the rules; the myth; the theme park ride known today as “American Exceptionalism.” The Saturday Evening Post was the studio—the Imagineer. The Post manufactured a Norman Rockwell-tinged conservatism that was downright intoxicating. It was Walt Disney for adults. A year before writing her love song to John Wayne, Didion had voted for Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president. She described herself years later in Political Fictions as having been raised a “conservative California Republican” by a mother who believed California was “too regulated, too taxed, too expensive.” The august qualities of the Didion aesthetic had begun as a California conservative’s dream (which mashed frontier myth with the stylishness of Rodeo Drive). In John Wayne, she saw an actor who was the “perfect mold” to pour the “inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail has been lost.”
The revolution was being televised: Burning buildings in Watts, the Beatles landing in America, birth control pills flying off the shelves, the sheer madness of Vietnam, Day-Glo green pins that read, “Send John Wayne to Vietnam,” and a Civil Rights Act that was opposed by Barry Goldwater on the grounds that it would, "Require for their effective execution the creation of a police state." Didion wrote a love song to John Wayne the same year Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power,” during the upheaval of the dream, in a publication that had commissioned her as their Frank Capra in designer sunglasses: the lead singer of a dream that was receding faster than John Wayne’s hairline. Didion was, as she would later express in The White Album, “radically separated from most of the ideas that interest other people.” Joan Didion never wore flowers in her hair. Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more photos of her in a cowboy hat. I suppose Ronald Reagan spoiled the motif.
Cowboys are our weakness because they produce great stories—not politics. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is a line from Wayne’s last great John Ford Western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Saturday Evening Post was printing a legend that belonged to a world that existed only in movie scripts and supermarket paperbacks. “He [John Wayne] suggested another world,” writes Didion, “one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where man could move free, could make his own code and live by it…” In a 1971 documentary about John Ford, actor Jimmy Stewart describes Ford’s films as capturing, “Not the way things were, but the way they should have been.” In 1965, before she began to see through the dream, Didion viewed John Wayne as a symbol of the country America could have been, or was, but probably was not. Didion wanted nothing to intrude upon her dreamland in which the “skies are a trifle bluer.”
Out where the friendship’s a little truer.
That’s where the West begins.
Didion uses Arthur Chapman’s “Out Where the West Begins” to poeticize the works of Remington, Bierstadt, Russell, and Van Ness, who painted their versions of Durango—where John Wayne filmed exterior shots for his 165th film, The Sons of Katie Elder. Durango was the place of “flickering frontiers and phantasmagoric battlefields.”
“The very name hallucinates,” writes Didion, “Man’s country. Out where the West begins. There had been ahuehuete trees in Durango; a waterfall, rattlesnakes…Eden lost.” She is in near delirium when she writes about her childhood hero. She’s in a dream state. She’s putting on her coon-skinned hat and rushing toward the gates of Frontierland. She’s on her way to Westworld.
The dream is how each of us copes with the reality that Eden may have never existed. John Wayne is Didion’s way of safely traveling to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. We all have our simulation. “Everyone has their own version of America,” Andy Warhol wrote in 1985’s America, “…from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” Didion’s dream is found in glossy magazine spreads, movies stars, Hemingway’s lean prose, glimmering swimming pools, and a frontier myth that she’d later describe in Where I Was From as a “theme, a decorative effect.” Didion eventually took the red pill. She realized Westworld was a trap. That was not the case in 1965.
“I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality,” she concludes in “John Wayne: A Love Song.” The blurring of the lines became a coping mechanism for Didion; a form of “magical thinking” that allowed her to grieve with other unbearable truths. She wrote in The White Album that we, “tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is undeniably true. There’s an iconic photo of Didion telling herself such a story. It was taken in 1967 in San Francisco. It’s Joan Didion, 33, a young Republican, as she stands half-smiling in tightened ballerina flats, leggings, skirt, and military-style jacket like a boarding-school teacher turned war correspondent. The look on her face blends amusement with cheeky cynicism for where the country was headed in 1967. Maybe she’s telling herself a story to get through the trampling of the dream; something about a cowboy who stands resolute at the bend in the river, where the cottonwoods grow, where Republic is a word that continues to shimmer—where cowboys are still our weakness. Perhaps she’s quietly writing a love song to the country America used to be but probably never was.